Sunday, January 18, 2009

Chapter Eleven - Flights

It was a week after my sixteenth birthday that I left McKinley's leather goods and tannery for the last time. I moved from scraper to hide bearer, and cleanser and by the end I could make a nice piece of leather. Old man McKinley, before he died, said I would have made a good tanner too.

I was sad, when he passed on. He worked me hard, but he was good to me. His family needed the money, so they sold the tannery to a man named Titus Baher, then they moved off to Ohio where some cousins had settled in the Western reserve. Baher was a mean man. Every penny was dear. He was so tight that he refused to have the name of the tannery changed because it would have cost him a few dollars to change the signs. For years people called him McKinley, though there was no confusing the two, and even though most knew his real name. It drove him mad. But not mad enough for him to change the signs, or be committed to the Insane Asylum.

I gave my notice when he wouldn't give me a nickel more a day. It was a deal I had with McKinley. Every year on my birthday he gave me a rise in pay, a nickel a day. So when I turned 16, I approached Baher and asked for the nickel.

He laughed at me and wondered aloud if I thought hides cost nothing. Of course I knew exactly what a hide cost, but I also know how much sweat and muscle I used to make those damn hides into leathergoods so that Mrs. Baher could sell them in the shop on Main Street, and to the merchants who traveled upriver to buy them.

¬ I asked again two days later.

He laughed again, and told me to get back to work.

Two days later I asked one last time.

He didn't laugh this time. In fact he got angry and told me that there were hundreds of boys who would jump at the chance of learning the tanner's trade.

I told him he should hire three or four to take my place, and I left.

I collected my things. There wasn't much. An old pair of boots that I used when tanning, some trousers and shirts. A winter coat that I wouldn't need for several months yet, and an old tin pipe that old man leather left behind on one of his visits. Sometimes I'd fill it with tobacco and lean against the barn at night watching the swallows swoop low through hovering clouds of gnats.

I put all my things in an old onion sack and headed toward town. When I reached McDonough's Palace, I walked down the alley and up the back stairs. The stage door was locked so I put down my belongings and pounded the heavy door.

Such a pounding, I knew, was the only way for me to get the attention of anyone who wasn’t within spitting distance of that door. I waited a moment for a response and getting none began to beat the door again.

I stopped when a heard the metallic click of the lock being thrown back.

McDonough pulled the door open and looked at me without the slightest hint of recollection. His eyes seemed unfocused. His hair was a stormy sea of unkempt waves and his shirt and trousers, usually impeccable, even for such a large man, were a mass of wrinkles and stains. His shirttail was untucked and a ghostly white patch of flesh showed where a button had popped and left a breach in his shirt front.

"McDonough," I announced. "I've come to join the theater."

He looked down at me without comment, turned and walked unsteadily away. I followed.

He climbed the stairs to his cramped office on the second floor of the building and when I entered, he was sitting in an oversized oak office chair pouring himself a drink from a bottle of Kentucky mash whiskey that held but one final ounce of amber liquid.

"Want a drink?" McDonough asked.

He spilled some whiskey on his pants as he thrust his drinking arm forward to offer me an empty bottle.

"It's like medicine to me, McDonough. No thanks."

"Medicine to me too," he chortled.

He sunk into a morbid silence again, an unusual condition for a man who never seemed to be at a loss for words.

"I've come to join the troupe," I announced again.

"I heard you the first time," he said, speaking into his fist as he stifled a belch.

"Get tired of leatherhide?" he asked, laughing.

"Had an argument with Baher," I explained. "He's tightfisted and won't pay a man what he's worth."

"How do you know I will?" he asked me.

"Because I know you McDonough. I've seen you spend money. It means nothing to you."

"It means everything to me, boy. Do you think I run a theatre because I love art? Do you think I peddle song and dance because I want this damned river town to be cultured? Do you think I give a good goddamn about laughter? Or tragedy? Or beauty? All these people want is a quick chorus and a glimpse of ankle."

He drained the glass and reached for the bottle again.

"Be a good boy and fetch me some more of this from the tavern."

He reached into his pocket and pulled out some silver, tossing it toward me. The coins never reached me with his wild toss and I bent to the floor searching for them. When I finally found them all I stood up and moved toward the door.

"Back so soon? There's a boy. Hand me the bottle." McDonough spoke without even opening his eyes.

I went through the door and down the stairs to fetch the whiskey before he realized I was gone.

It didn't take much to convince the barman to sell me a bottle of good whiskey. This wasn't the first time I had made such a trip for McDonough. To be truthful, the barman hadn't hesitated but for a beat the very first time I came down to buy a bottle. It seems I wasn't the first boy to be sent on such a trip for the theatre management.

"He's in his pints again," the barman chuckled.

"I think he's in his gallons now."

I took the bottle and ran back toward the theatre. I'd seen McDonough drink enough to sing opera aloud. I'd seen him drink enough to ask each and every one of his dancers to marry him in an evening's time. I'd seen him drink enough to challenge the biggest blacksmith in town to fight, knowing full well that no roomful of men would let any harm come to the man who brought them such a regular parade of female pulchritude.

McDonough hadn't stirred since I left. His great bulk covered the chair in an ocean of black gabardine. What muscle control he had when he was awake, disappeared when he was asleep and his flesh was as soft, and likely, as pink, as that of a mother sow about to birth a litter.

"McDonough," I coughed.

"Boy, you back so soon. Got the bottle?"

I handed it to him.

"Like a snort?" he asked again, but not before putting the bottle to his lips and pulling a draft of about a quarter of the bottle's contents.

He squinted his eyes, and a sweat broke out on his expansive forehead, and he made like to stand.

"Stay put, McDonough. Stay put."

He would hear nothing of it. He rolled out of his chair, and realized before he could get to his feet that he truly wasn't able to stand. He ended up, hands and knees on the floor, rolling back and forth like some bear in a swollen river searching the current for shad. He even growled a time or two.

"Give me the whiskey," he hollered.

I grabbed the bottle and ran for the window. Thrusting the bottle into the open space over the alley, I upended it. I heard McDonough scream as if he'd been stuck with a hot poker. Then, I felt his hand grab at my pant leg and pull me hard enough to toss me off balance.

I ended up, head facing down towards the hardpacked sand and gravel of the alley two floors below, and above me, at my foot, now grasping desperately at my pant leg was a red faced McDonough whose concentration on the task at hand was written across his deeply furrowed brow.

"Don't drop me," I shouted up.

"I ought to," he replied.

He inched me up toward the window, but was having great difficulty passing his hand from the fabric of my trousers to the bony grip of an ankle without losing hold altogether and dropping me to sure death into the alley below.

"Will you run for another bottle?" he asked.

"I'll run for two."

"Then come in and rest awhile."

With that he leaned his entire girth backwards and pulled me gasping into the room. I landed on him, on the floor. He was once again unconscious.

When he woke up, a full eighteen hours later, I was there, having spent the intervening time on the great sofa he kept in the lobby, reading the latest editions of Harpers.

"Jack," I heard his call through a solid sleep, and woke in an instant and was running up the stairs.

"Jack," McDonough called again. "Whiskey. Bring me more whiskey."

I opened the door to find McDonough up at at the mirror, half of his great black beard was shorn. He turned when he saw me enter the room in the mirror's reflection. He was smiling.

"I'm a new man, Jack. I want a bottle of whiskey just to show you I can pour it out of the window without desiring a drop. Just like you."

He smiled again and returned to the mirror with his shaving brush. He soaked the remainder of the beard that he already trimmed short with a scissors. Then he worked up a mighty lather and dug his straight razor into it.

He worked at the beard like a lumberman at a thick log. He swiped and sawed and scraped, and didn't raise a single drop of blood. Looking at the white flesh that appeared beneath the beard, I realized for the first time that McDonough was a real man. Flesh. Lots of it for that matter. Until this moment, I always saw him as someone larger than life, like, even in life he was someone stalking the board of the stage. But that glimpse of white skin, now I was sure he was flesh and blood.

Maybe it was the theatrical way he spoke, his diction, his broad gestures, or his measured step. Or maybe it was the way that he always seemed to carry a prop, something to turn, and examine with his hands in a meaningful way, as he spoke philosophically about the current topic of the day.

Without the beard he seemed younger by eight or ten years. I realized that he was probably not old even enough to be my father. And suddenly it became clear that he was very young to be the owner of his own theatre.

He was his own man, and he wasn't a man of thirty yet. And I suddenly wondered how it was that he achieved so much in so short a space of time. I made a determination, then and there, to find an answer.

"We're leaving town my young friend." McDonough said, spraying lather as he did.

"I'd like to stay with you," I began my explanation, but before I could ask for a job, McDonough repeated his assertion.

"I don't understand what you're talking about," I said.

"I'm a new man Jack. I almost gave up. They almost had me. They thought they did, and I almost did give up. But I didn't. I'm a new man Jack."

"That didn't help much, McDonough."

"You remember how Merilee’s father shot her, and nearly shot me."

I explained as how I was unlikely to forget something like that.

"O'Day?" I asked.

"The very. Well, he's sheriff now. He got let off by a judge who said he was justified shooting his any daughter of his if she turned out to be a whore. Didn't matter by whose word she was a whore. But her old man said she was, and the judge believed him and let him off."

"And then he made him sheriff?"

"No, then the good people of our humble town elected him to be sheriff. He ran as a Republican, his father was an abolitionist in his day. The whole ticket won. Not a mugwump amongst them. First thing he done was shut me down. Completely. Said I was corrupting the young folk of town. I told him I was worried, and when he asked me why, I said that if the people in my theatre night after night were the young folk, then there was a plague of baldness going around."

"But he shut you down."

"For a day or two. then the "young" people of the town began to long for their entertainment. Sheriff came in the first night I was open and got me alone in a back room. He said he'd shoot me first chance he had, for no reason at all. He said, "I'd shoot you right now, but I want you think about what you got coming to you for awhile, just like I thought about my baby daughter up there on that stage showing her ankles to the world."

"Why don't you tell somebody?"

¬ "Tell who? He's the sheriff."

"Tell Chief Boyle, the coppers will help you."

"The sheriff or me, who would you believe if you were Chief Boyle?" McDonough asked me, wiping the last traces of lather from his face.

I was silenced. Not because I thought McDonough's fate was sealed and hopeless, but because I had given up gainful employment at the tannery to join McDonough on the stage at his Palace.

"It's grand, isn't it boy?"

"You're still drunk McDonough."

"I'm not drunk Jack. It's the opportunity I've been waiting for. Here I was, a renowned talent moldering away in this dusty old theatre, in this two-bit town. I've deprived the world of my talents for far too long. It's the road for me Jack. Fame, wealth, women. I'll live my life out of a trunk, at least until this town cools down, or that sheriff takes a hoof to the head."

McDonough did not yet see my dilemma. Surely he heard me tell him yesterday that I'd left my job at McKinley's. Surely he had some notion that I was left without a steady income, and that I'd eat through my meager savings in a few week's time. But surely as all that, he was two bottles into a bender when I told him.

"Sounds terrific, McDonough. But where will you perform?"

"I've got contacts from here to Manhattan. I know every theatre owner in every borough from New Haven to Albany."

"But what will you do?" I asked McDonough, realizing that the only thing I had ever heard him do was introduce other acts from the cramped stage of the Palace.

He responded to my question with a song in some foreign tongue. It sounded Italian to me, and I had no idea what he was singing about, but he sang so loud, and he shaped those notes like they were doilies for your granny's table. And before he was done he had tears in his eyes, and I had tears in mine too.

"The best response a singer could hope for, tears. Thank you Jack."

"I'm not crying for your song McDonough. I'm crying for me."

With that I explained to my friend how I had bailed out of my job at the leatherworks hoping to find work in the theater with him, and that now I felt hopeless, and resigned to taking a laborers position that would pay me far less than the money I made tanning hides. I could see myself, filthy and pitiable, hands raw and bleeding, dodging chunks of brownstone over in the Portland quarries.

"None of it," McDonough said. "You'll be riding with me. I need accompaniment. Can't sing without a little squeezebox to back me up."

"Could I?"

"Sure could."

"Elizabeth," I suddenly remembered.

"Now Jack, she's a grown woman and don't need you to look after her. Fact is, she probably spends a lot of her time worrying over you, preparing extra meals and such. You're a burden to her, sure."

The way McDonough put it, I guessed he was right. Lately I noticed Elizabeth didn't tear up at all when I called on her.

"I suppose you're right, McDonough.”

"You can handle a horse better than I ever could. And you near squeeze the life out of that old German box. I need you, Jack."

"I'll come," I said. "What have I got to lose. But what about the theater?"

McDonough pulled an old carpet bag from behind a steamer trunk and knocked his hand against it several times. The room filled with a cloud of dust. He opened the bag and proceeded to stuff it with undergarments. I never saw anyone with so many undergarments, though I knew that women were said to have far more then men. McDonough filled the bag until it stood on the floor of its own weight and girth like a small multicolored animal.

"The theater will be run by Ann Barton."

"The singer?" I asked.

"The same," McDonough responded. "She manages the dancers now anyway, and knows how to add a column of numbers. I'm letting her use the theatre rent-free if she'll set aside a quarter of the profits. She thought it was a good deal. So do I. Ready, Jack?"

McDonough had a carriage prepared, and we packed his belonging in under an hour.

By six that evening we were halfway to Manhattan. McDonough called it the gateway to the world. He described streets crowded with people. Buildings of five and six stories. Stores where you could buy silk stocking from France, and carpets from Persia. Great poles strungs twenty deep with telegraph wires. Gaslights on even the most insignificant street. And Broadway, one vast cascade of theatres, each filled every night with audiences calling for music, dance and drama.

I was frightened.

We stopped the evening in Bridgeport, a port town three times as big as Middletown, and twice as big as New Haven.

We ate in a tavern filled with rough-talking sailors, and I asked one or two if they had seen Vinny. And none could remember him, but with my description they recommended that I stop at the Barnum house. Someone there might have heard of him.

McDonough was not at all interested in visiting the home of the famous circus man P. T. Barnum. After all, McDonough had no stake in finding Vinny. But he suspected that we'd land in jail if we even tried to approach the imposing brick mansion that we'd passed on the way to the rooming house where we were staying.

"You're a stranger in this town, Jack. He's a great man. The police are watching him all the time. What makes you think you can get anywhere near his front door."

"Even a great man's got to walk with his feet on the ground, McDonough," I replied.

"Have it your way. But don't expect me to follow you, or wait, if you get thrown in the hoosegow. I'll be heading to New York tomorrow morning, and if you're not in the wagon, I'll leave without you."

I pondered the choices, but not for too long. I was sure Vinny would not join the circus, as an attraction, but that he might have used his appearances to land some other kind of job. After all, a man like Mr. Barnum, who had hired men who looked like dogs, and women with beards, would not be put off for a minute by the appearance of a man with a simple defect like Vinny's.

"I'll be in the wagon at seven," I said to McDonough as I stood from my stool and headed for the door. On the way out I grabbed a hunk of roast beef and a pickled egg from the free buffet.

"You can leave without me if I'm not there, but you've got to promise that we can take Vinny along if I find him."

McDonough, with his face attached to a beer mug waved his approval casually then turned toward the bartender with an empty glass to offer.

I made my way through streets that were genuinely dark. I asked a man sitting on a stoop smoking a pipe where the lamps were.

"Right in front of you sonny," he answered.

I turned to find that he was indicating an iron lampost.

"I mean the light," I explained unneccesarily.

"Where you from?" he asked.

I looked around to see if this was some cue to an army of marauders who would attack me and take what little I had left.

"North of here," I said.

"Shelton?" he asked.


"Well then maybe you didn't hear about our lamps in Bridgeport. You see, the mayor wanted the finest lamps. So he bought these. The salesman said they would burn with a very bright flame because they drew more oxygen. Well what it means is that they have larger vents, and when a strong wind blows in off the sound, it blows these lamps right out. Some mornings you wake to the smell of gas in the street and you're afraid to strike your pipe lest you be blown to kindgom come."

He would have told me more about the lamps, had I let him, but I asked him for the quickest path to Barnum's house.

"It's straight up this street toward town," he answered. "But he ain't in this month. "He's got three troupes out now. One in Ohio or Illinois. One up in Maine, and the other in Europe. He's in Europe. Want to join the circus, do you?"

"No sir, I'm looking for a friend who disappeared over a year ago."

With that I described Vinny to him. He hadn't seen him, but he had seen just about ever other manner of man and women. Men with two heads, women with elephant trunks, men with rubber faces, women with horse faces, men with scales, women with fins. Women who were half-men, and men who were half women. He'd seen men with tails, and women with beaks. Women with four legs and men with four arms. But he hadn't seen Vinny.

"You won't get anyone home at the Barnum house," he warned. "But go and take a look at it anyway, it's better than the circus.

I walked the five blocks to the house without further incident, and stood in front of it looking at the darkened windows. It was clear no one was home, and I was about to start back to the rooming house when a policeman rounded the corner and asked me my business. I told him I was hoping to find Mr. Barnum at home, and in turn try to discover if my friend had come and joined the circus.

"I hate the circus," the policeman said.

"I don't think I ever met anyone that felt that way," I replied.

"And I hate Barnum too."

"Why's that?"

"It's really very simple, lad. Every day, I walk this street and see human misery and suffering. Starving babies, misshapen cripples, orphans, beggars, the beaten. It's terrible."

"But can't the circus bring joy into their lives."

"A bit of food and money would bring a lot more joy. Sure a clown can make you laugh. Barnum makes his gold off the backs of those more miserable than him. Those who have nowhere else to turn for a decent living. Those who were going to be stared at cruelly for all their lives, for nothing. And he tells them how to turn that cruelty to cash. That's why I hate him and his circus. And your friend is better off on his own.

"Barnum is a businessman. His business is cruelty. And he makes us all the worse for saying it's all right to focus our eyes on the suffering and smile."

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